Antonio Sagona, 2011. Photograph © Claudia Sagona
Antonio Sagona, 2011. Photograph © Claudia Sagona

Honouring the Life and Work of Tony Sagona

Free-threshing wheat, a small piece of inscribed banded agate, the myth of Jason and Medea, ancient Greek links to Eurasia, a history of Near Eastern archaeology at the University of Melbourne, early metallurgy, pastoralism and proto-sedentary communities in the Caucasus. At first glance, these things might not seem related. However, they are all elements in the stories told by presenters at a recent Classics and Archaeology symposium devoted to the legacy of the late Emeritus Professor Antonio (Tony) Sagona. All these stories connect with Tony’s scholarship and fieldwork, which ranged from the early Bronze Age Kura-Araxes culture in the Caucasus region to long-lived sites such as Sos Höyük in Turkey, as well as his more recent exploration of the Anzac battlefield site at Gallipoli. Larissa Tittl tells us about Tony’s life and work, and the symposium in his honour.

On 27 October 2018, Classics and Archaeology held a special event in honour of the late Emeritus Professor Antonio (Tony) Sagona. Re-Orienting Ancient Near-Eastern Studies was both a symposium and a celebration of Tony’s life, loves, achievements, and ongoing influence today.

The event brought together academics, archaeologists, family and former students from around the globe for a day-long series of presentations focusing on research and scholarship that reflects and builds upon Tony Sagona’s distinguished career in Near Eastern archaeology. The day culminated in a reception where a Festschrift published to celebrate Tony’s sixtieth birthday was presented to his family.

How is it possible to properly know the life of one person, however much-loved? For that matter, how is it possible to properly know a landscape, a culture or a past? How do we bind ourselves to the people, places and things that we love? Perhaps this is done through our personal connections to these things: intimate connections developed and extended over time, through personal effort, passion and deep knowledge.

As archaeologist, teacher, colleague, mentor, friend, son, husband and father, Tony Sagona exemplified such connections. He was enmeshed in a network of relations: between people, academic disciplines, cultures; between the past and the present. Archaeology itself is the story of interactions, of how humans connect to each other, to objects and to places across time and space. The notion of connection – in various guises – emerged as an overriding theme of the day’s presentations.

Re-Orienting Ancient Near-Eastern Studies opened with an introduction from Professor Trevor Burnard, Head of SHAPS. In a call to arms for valuing the humanities, Professor Burnard echoed Tony’s own deep commitment to the humanities as a vital part of how we understand ourselves and our world.

Keynote speaker, Professor Marcella Frangipane (Sapienza University of Rome), recalled Tony as both an ‘eminent researcher’ and a ‘very dear friend’. Professor Frangipane’s talk focused on interactions and connections between pastoralists and mobile groups in the context of proto-state emergence, crisis and collapse at fourth millennium BCE Arslantepe.

Professor Frangipane’s presentation reflected Tony Sagona’s early passion for the southern Caucasus region. As Professor Frangipane noted, Tony’s interpretations of field data helped to develop the existing knowledge of this area. The site of Arslantepe (3370–3000 BCE), excavated by various Italian archaeological teams, was a significant local centre, connecting populations from various regions. Excavations have uncovered a temple and a ‘palace’ (with the remains of around 2,200 sealings, indicating a sizeable bureaucracy) at different levels of the site. Constant interaction is evident in the patterns of changing pottery shapes, architectural features, faunal remains and the development of trade in and technology for metals. Around 3100 to 2900 BCE, Kura-Araxes groups expanded into the area, with evidence of (quoting the professor) ‘complex and unstable relationships with the local population’. New pottery shapes and architectural features accompanied this influx, and an increased desire for metals indicates an emerging elite population. The work undertaken at this site captures the essence of archaeology’s quest, personified by Tony Sagona: meticulous attention to excavation techniques and evidence-based interpretation of the finds with the aim of uncovering both the particular history of one site, and the wider cultural changes of which it was a part.

ony Sagona with a local worker during first season of excavations at Büyüktepe Höyuk, Turkey, 1990. Photograph courtesy Claudia Sagona
Tony Sagona with a local worker during first season of excavations at Büyüktepe Höyük, Turkey, 1990. Photograph courtesy Claudia Sagona


Professor Barbara Helwing (University of Sydney) has examined existing knowledge about early sedentary life in the southern Caucasus, and how this has been transformed through new interpretative methods and models and the opening of contact with former Soviet countries in the region. Tony Sagona had begun work in this area even before the fall of the Soviet Union.

Early interaction between Neolithic groups in the southern Caucasus is evident, along with long-distance relations between Iran and North Mesopotamia in the Chalcolithic that influenced the region. The complexities and diversity of these interactions is revealed in the archaeological record. Professor Helwing noted some very interesting Early Neolithic vessels containing wine residue; it is not clear if the grapes were domestic or imported. A shell bead workshop contained shells from the Caspian Sea; painted pottery (at the site of Kamiltepe) suggests ceramic traditions from the Iranian plateau and the Caspian Sea area, rather than the monochrome wares found elsewhere (such as at Gobelke Tepe). This indicates, according to Dr Helwing, ‘a fine-grained encounter between two different Neolithic traditions’. Dr Helwing emphasised the importance of archaeological fieldwork in creating knowledge, stating that ‘sitting at my desk and just writing theoretical papers wouldn’t change a thing’. Here, too, Tony Sagona’s own practice was exemplary testimony to the fact that knowledge is forged not through research alone, but through intimate first-hand understandings and experiences of sites, landscapes and material culture, alongside interactions with other researchers.

Moving from archaeology to myth, Professor Chris Mackie (formerly of the University of Melbourne, now at La Trobe University), who worked with Tony Sagona on the Joint Archaeological-Historical Survey at Gallipoli, explored the story of Jason and Medea. Tony had an enduring interest in this myth, as Medea’s home was near the Black Sea in Colchis (modern Georgia). Although Colchis was at the edge of the Greek world, Medea was central to Greek literature and myth, as a ‘quintessential foreign woman’: the myth can be read as a ‘cross-cultural contact story between Greece and Georgia’.

Professor Mackie explored the idea that Jason was originally seen as a healer, being taught (as were Achilles and Asclepius) by Chiron, a centaur with healing powers. Although Jason’s healing role is not evident in literary sources, Professor Mackie described a scene on a Corinthian column krater (c. 575 BCE) in which Jason appears to be healing a blind man called Phineas, laying his hands on the man’s eyes.

According to Professor Mackie’s reading, Jason’s role as a healer was transferred to Medea, with this function then aligned to her development as the ‘other’, a sorcerer and foreigner who used her powers for destruction instead of healing. Jason and Medea are thus ‘two sides of the same coin’.

Dr Hyun Jin Kim (University of Melbourne) counted Tony Sagona as ‘a loyal friend and a great mentor’, someone who was ‘most collegial and welcoming’ and someone passionate about interdisciplinary research. Dr Kim spoke of the collaborative projects that they had been pursuing together, involving the development of new ways of understanding Graeco-Roman interactions with Eurasia in antiquity: an interdisciplinary approach explored in a recent volume the two scholars worked on.

In his Politics (Book VII, 1327b), Aristotle contends that Greece lies between the boundaries of Europe and Asia, being neither of one nor the other but sharing the virtues of both. As Dr Kim observed, ancient Greek culture did not exist in a state of ‘splendid isolation’. This is exemplified by Alexander the Great’s incursion into Central Asia: tellingly, the Moghul Khans of that region later claimed descent from Alexander. Other talks on the day also explored the notion that ancient societies interacted both closely and extensively; what we call ‘culture’ is something reflected and refracted through the prism of this close contact.

Dr Catherine Longford (University of Sheffield), an archaeobotanist and former student of Tony’s, noted that both Tony and Claudia Sagona had had a ‘huge influence’ on her life. Dr Longford described the movement of pastoral communities and the spread of culture in the Kura Araxes region (southern Caucasus) through her identification of specific bread wheat varieties used there. The spread of free-threshing wheat in particular seems linked to the Kura-Araxes cultural horizon. While these groups have largely been interpreted as mobile pastoralists, Dr Longford’s recent research into the sowing and harvesting cycles of the wheat used by these groups suggests year-round occupation. As such, the extent of Kura-Araxes mobility needs re-examination. Dr Longford skilfully reminded the audience of how a simple piece of evidence, of something used in daily life, such as bread wheat, can be used to reinterpret the ancient past. The wheat used by the Kura-Araxes population became part of a network of associations – signifying elements of social storage and sharing behaviour, for instance – that shaped their cultural identity. It is through archaeological evidence like this – both intimate and quotidian – and not just through the more elaborate forms of material culture, that the ancient past is unveiled.

A poignant talk by Dr Claudia Sagona (University of Melbourne) focused on one small object that highlighted the work she and Tony had undertaken across the years. In 2010 archaeologists atbItalian-led excavations at Tas-Silġ on Malta unearthed a small crescent-shaped fragment of banded agate. The fragment was inscribed with a dedication in cuneiform, dated to around 1300 BCE. The inscription identifies a small group of individuals from Nippur, Mesopotamia. The group dedicated the agate piece to a god – most likely Ninurta – at a temple. Agate was thought to have magical properties, assisting with childbirth, reversing hair loss and warding off death.

Dr Claudia Sagona. Photograph © Donna Tittl, 2018
Dr Claudia Sagona. Photograph © Larissa Tittl, 2018

The origins of the agate itself are uncertain: agate was not mined in Mesopotamia, so the object’s journey had already begun elsewhere – perhaps India – prior to its deposition at the Nippur temple. It is thought to have been traded across the Near East before being taken to Malta by Phoenician traders. Here, it was a signifier of social status: an elite object infused with the exotic aura of its rarity and origin in a far-off land.

Deftly tying the thread of ideas that ran through all the day’s talks, Dr Sagona took the audience on the agate fragment’s journey from Mesopotamia to its penultimate destination on Malta. The banded agate was ‘imbued with meaning’, mirroring Tony Sagona’s own appreciation of the ‘colourful, many-layered and quite extraordinary ancient world’. As Dr Sagona later told me, the agate piece perfectly encapsulated Tony’s life and work, with his Maltese heritage and his research interests that crossed borders and cultures.

As the program’s final speaker, Associate Professor Andrew Jamieson (University of Melbourne) gave a historical overview of ancient Near Eastern archaeology at the University of Melbourne, from the discipline’s beginnings in the 1950s to its development under Tony Sagona’s leadership and consolidation. Associate Professor Jamieson recalled Tony as ‘the face of archaeology, particularly Near Eastern archaeology, at the University of Melbourne’. Then followed a roll-call of some of the most significant scholars to grace the Near Eastern archaeology and language program at Melbourne – from Jessie Webb, who declared ‘they [the university] were not allowed to imagine that everything began or ended with the Greeks and Romans’ – to Maurice Goldman, who was fluent in at least 40 Semitic languages and spoke Aramaic to his cat. Tony Sagona’s own vital contribution began in 1989, when he developed new subjects with a focus on research skills and a ‘hands-on’ approach that ‘brought the ancient world to life’.

A reception closed the day’s proceedings, with colleagues, friends, former students and family gathering to celebrate Tony’s life. The atmosphere was warm and cheerful, despite the obvious underlying sadness. Dr Aleks Michalewicz, Tony’s PhD student and friend, proudly presented Tony’s daughter and sister with the Festschrift developed in honour of his sixtieth birthday. Although unable to see the final publication, Tony had been presented with the table of contents, and was moved to see papers from so many of his colleagues included in the volume. Indeed, it seems that – according to Tony’s Turkish colleague, and Festschrift co-editor Associate Professor Atilla Batmaz (Ege University, Izmir), whose words were read out by Dr Michalewicz – many more than could be accommodated had wanted to be included.

Georgian archaeologist Dr Giorgi Bedianashvili (Georgian National Museum and now also working at Dr Vincent Clark & Associates archaeological consultants in Melbourne) also spoke passionately about his work and friendship with Tony. Finally, the historian Professor Joy Damousi, who had worked closely with Tony over many years, gave an emotional tribute to the man she called ‘friend’ as well as colleague. This ability to reach across boundaries, not just between archaeological and academic categories but between people, seems to have been one of Tony’s greatest strengths.

Tony Sagona cultivated rich and lasting relationships with his students. Like his colleagues, Tony’s students have always regarded him highly: a regard often accompanied by a deep affection. The continuing engagement of new generations of undergraduate and postgraduate students with the Classics and Archaeology program’s Near Eastern focus is in no small measure due to Tony’s passion for this field. His work is being carried on by colleagues such as Associate Professor Andrew Jamieson in Near Eastern archaeology and Dr Brent Davis in Near Eastern archaeology and languages.

As with the inscribed piece of banded agate that travelled the ancient world, revealing a rich, nuanced and complex past that continues to yield new stories today, so too has Tony Sagona left a lasting and powerful impression on those who knew, studied or worked with him, and on those yet to come who will benefit from his vision for Near Eastern studies at the University of Melbourne.